Tales of two more projects

Earlier this year I wrote a post about two development projects that were staggering through the approvals process in Santa Monica. One was an apartment building on Lincoln Boulevard, replacing worn-out automobile repair shops, and the other was a hotel project, the one Frank Gehry has designed for the prominent corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Two similar projects are now plodding towards their respective destinies. One consists of two apartment buildings that are being developed together and which are considered as one project for environmental review. The other is the redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel, for which new plans were publicly released earlier this year.

The two apartment buildings will be built near the beach on land adjacent to the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels. They will replace two vacant lots—the parking lot behind Shutters with frontages on Ocean Avenue, Pico, and Vicente Terrace, and the space just south of Casa del Mar on Ocean Front Walk.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Casa del Mar Hotel.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Avenue, behind Shutters, between Pico and Vicente Terrace.

The format and programming of the apartments, designed by local architects Koning Eizenberg, conform to that of apartments that both for-profit and affordable housing developers in Santa Monica have been building for about 20 years in commercial zones. Meaning that three or four stories of apartments sit above underground parking and (in most but not all cases) ground floor retail. This model has served Santa Monica well since new zoning that encouraged housing in commercial zones was first adopted in the 1990s for downtown.

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Architect’s rending of proposed apartments between Shutters and Ocean Avenue.

Given that these new apartments on vacant lots won’t displace anyone, given that they are in a busy part of town that has been intensively developed (with many buildings much larger than these) for about a century, and given that they aren’t taller than the hotels next to them (and step back to respect the shorter buildings they will face on Vicente Terrace), one would think that getting approval for these buildings would be easy. Further, the developers have tried to make the process easy on themselves, by asking for no variances from the applicable zoning other than some minor technical adjustments to take into the account the significant slope on the Ocean Avenue lot.

However, the developers are building a “Tier 2” project, which means they have to through a development review rather than an administrative approval. This entails, among other things, an expensive and time consuming environmental review which at the end of the day, for infill projects like these apartments, doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already. It’s perverse to make it harder to build Tier 2 at this scale, because the public gets more from a Tier 2 project than it does from a Tier 1. Face it, we only make approval harder and more expensive and less predictable for Tier 2 because it’s expected (but not necessarily true) that a developer will make more money from a bigger building. It’s more envy than anything else.

As for public benefits, a Tier 2 project must provide affordable units at a 50% higher rate than Tier 1, and of course, a bigger project produces more affordable units than a smaller project even without the bonus. If you want to house people, you have to build housing. (Also worth noting if you like affordable housing: the City owned the property next to Casa del Mar and sold it to the developers for more than $13 million, money that the City has put into its affordable housing fund. That amount of money was only paid because the property could be developed.)

As it happens, applications for these two apartment buildings were filed in September 2015, three years ago, and they are only now (Wednesday night, in fact) coming before the Planning Commission.

No surprise, but the apartments face neighborhood opposition. A new neighborhood group, South Avenue Residents (SOAR), which represents at least some neighbors on Vicente Terrace, filed a comment letter to the draft EIR with 67 comments. I have read many EIR comment letters, but I recommend this one in particular as a definitive catalog of first-world complaints. My favorite comment in the letter is number 42: “There are multiple dogs and cats living with their owners on Vicente Terrace. How will the developers compensate owners for special care of their animals during construction?”

This attitude of the beach dwellers is nothing new. Twenty years ago when I was on the Planning Commission there was an issue about hours of operation for Pacific Park. A woman, who later became prominent in Santa Monica’s no-growth community, testified that she had recently moved to an apartment near the Pier and she was shocked at how much noise and activity there was on Ocean Front Walk. She said that when she was moving here to the beach, she thought it was going to be like Mendocino.

Disclosure: longtime readers of mine know that when I wrote for the Santa Monica Lookout News nearby neighbors on Seaview Terrace provided plenty of grist for my mill. I’ll confess that I was in part drawn to writing about these new apartments for the opportunity to check in on what was going on in the neighborhood. It was like old times to see that once-serial project opponent Stephanie Barbanell had submitted two comment letters to the EIR. Ms. Barbanell once told neighbors that she considered her opposition to development projects (in particular, any licenses to sell alcoholic beverages) a form of conceptual art, but in recent years she’s been quiet. Good for her that she’s expressing herself again!

Ultimately, building apartments and some ground floor retail on these sites makes sense because the zoning prohibits nearly everything else. The area is under the control of Measure S, passed in 1990 to stop hotel and large restaurant development. What better to be built on these vacant lots than housing? (There may be up to three small restaurants as well.) Would the neighbors prefer an office building? (I’m sure there are tech billionaires who would love to be able to take a break and surf whenever the waves are good.) Anti-development residents in Santa Monica like to go on about how much quieter Santa Monica used to be, as a “sleepy beach town,” but what if someone wanted to bring back Pacific Ocean Park? Or even just put an amusement arcade on these lots? I’m sure the neighbors would love that.

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The revised plans to remake the Miramar Hotel and add condominiums that were released last April were the third major iteration of the plans. The plans are the product of nearly 10 years of controversy. The Miramar and the proposed office and housing project at the Paper Mate factory were the major catalysts for the revival of the development wars in Santa Monica after the approval of the LUCE in 2010.

The revival of the development wars climaxed with the defeat of the Paper Mate plans in 2016. Since then, however, after the defeat of Measure LV in November 2016 and the approval of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) in the summer of 2017, there has been less heated rhetoric and fewer political battles about development. In the meantime, the Miramar brought in a new team of developers and new architects, the internationally famous firm of Cesar and Rafael Pelli.

The new team appears, with their new plans, to be committed to not igniting another conflagration. They have been more communicative with nearby residents and other locals than the earlier development team. Most important, the new plans fit inside the envelope for the site that the DCP provides. Previous plans required substantial changes to the existing land use parameters.

While the plan includes 60 condominiums, which are controversial in Santa Monica because residents who live in houses worth millions of dollars don’t like to think of their sleepy beach town as a place where rich people live, it also provides for 30 units of affordable housing. Again, as with the beach apartments, while it’s true that rich people, including dreaded Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks looking for new pieds-à-terre, will now have new housing options near the beach, so will more poor and working-class people.

If the plan were going through the approval process now, during the lull in the development wars and not too long after City Council adopted the DCP, I suspect that it would fare well. Unfortunately for the plan, however, it’s now in environmental review jail—an EIR is being written (and yes, for a project this big an EIR is appropriate), and that typically takes more than a year. Then the plan will run a gauntlet of approvals: Landmarks Commission, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, City Council and Coastal Commission. It will be at least a couple more years before the plan might win final approval.

Time is the enemy of all plans because time is the enemy of certainty. The Miramar’s developers crafted their first plan (one I didn’t think was very good) in consultation with the City’s planning staff. At a City Council hearing, the plan was shot down because it blocked too many views. The council advised the developers to come back with a tall skinny building, to preserve more views. Which the developers did (with another not-very-good plan), but by then the council had forgotten what it had said about a tall tower, and that plan went nowhere.

It was after that debacle that the Miramar brought in its new team. They waited out the DCP process to see what it would allow them to build. Now they have given us the new plan, which is, by the way, quite good.

But in two years, who knows that the City will be telling them they can build.

Thanks for reading.

Putting new modes in multi-modal

The silicon-enabled “new economy” is now disrupting transportation much as it previously disrupted retail, journalism, entertainment, publishing, etc. Starting with ride-sharing, and now with dockless scooters and e-bikes, infusions of new money and new ideas are colliding with a transportation system that had been locked for decades into a 20th century model that massively privileged drivers of privately-owned automobiles. While scraps of investment were thrown to “mass” transit, culturally the norms were that for car drivers, the ideal was maximal personal freedom and choice, but if you travelled by other means, nearly all aspects of the trip would be constrained.

This even applied to walking: the demands of drivers restricted walkers to skinny sidewalks and caused the criminalizing of walking under the invented concept of “jaywalking.”

Now much of this has been turned on its head, in large part because freedom to drive became a monster that consumed itself, in the form of traffic congestion. When people finally realized that infinitely increasing road capacity and space dedicated to parking was not only impossible but also counter-productive for reducing congestion, governments started to implement policies that allowed for reducing driver freedom and increasing the cost of driving, particularly in cities.

A pivotal moment was London’s implementation of congestion pricing in 2003. While only a few cities have followed with their own direct congestion-pricing programs, many, including Santa Monica, have significantly increased the cost of parking in downtown areas, which is another form of congestion pricing. Cities have expanded car-free zones, narrowed streets, and expanded facilities for pedestrians and alternatives to cars, such as wider sidewalks and bike lanes. Car manufacturers are planning for the decline of individual car ownership.

Meanwhile, in cities and regions like L.A., the public has voted to tax themselves to invest in transit. Yet for a long time many of the controversies about transit involved how to please car-drivers. It was controversial when the City decided to provide little parking at Santa Monica Expo stations. Now, with Uber and Lyft, as well as public bike-sharing programs, and with significant reductions in the use of the City’s existing parking garages, and given at the same time the success of Expo, those debates over parking seem like what they were: from another century.

And now scooters. Like everyone else, I was confused last September when Birds first appeared lined up on downtown Santa Monica sidewalks. Then I saw people riding them. And like everyone who wasn’t riding them, I got indignant, especially when I saw scooters being ridden on sidewalks.

But I’ve come around. I mean, talk about another mode in “mixed-modal.” For years transit planners have been worrying about the “last mile” problem, and sure enough someone comes along with an option that works for many transit users (not all, of course—nothing works for all) and which requires zero public capital investment. Wow. We should be trying everything we can to make this work.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking traffic.

Government planners are naturally uncomfortable working with for-profit partners, in a context, transit, that traditionally requires subsidy. But it’s not the first time public/private partnerships have built transportation systems. The transcontinental railroads were a public/private partnership, and since World War II America has built a tremendous continent-wide transport system consisting of airlines, airports, interstate highways, and rental cars. (But open only to those with credit cards.)

As for the criticisms of scooters and scooter riders, one need not wage generational war to realize that scooter use needs to be subject to rules. But non-riders should calm down. Frankly, while as a daily cyclist my hackles were at first raised by having to share “my” bike lanes, my attitude started to change when I realized that the complaints about scooter riders were often the same complaints made against us cyclists.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking an intersection (during the scrambled-walk phase).

Two things to remember are (i) that these scooters are a new thing and if Bird had asked to be regulated ahead of time, no one in City Hall would have known what to do with them, and (ii) that with education and outreach, people can change behaviors, particularly if the admonitions to change come from the peer group.

Put it this way: if dog owners can learn to clean up after their pets, and if smokers can learn not to smoke everywhere they want, two advances in social etiquette no one would have predicted 30 years ago, scooter riders can learn not to ride on sidewalks.

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Behavior modification in process.

Also, we have to be mindful of how people exaggerate the importance of new and recent occurrences. A few weeks ago, there was outrage on Facebook because of an accident on the beach bike path that involved a scooter. Accidents are bad, and motorized vehicles shouldn’t be on the bike path, but every weekend there are accidents on the bike path. As a cyclist who rides the bike path, let me say that three pedestrians walking side-by-side, blocking a lane, or racing roller-bladers sweeping from side-to-side, shouldn’t be on the bike path, either.

People didn’t need scooters to do stupid things.

And if the City is so concerned about helmets, how come it doesn’t make Breeze bike users wear them?

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Parked vehicles that are not scooters taking up valuable space.

I only have a few things to say about the competition over which two scooter companies get to participate in the City’s pilot program. To begin with, the City gets points for having the program, rather than reacting to scooters by banning them or making arbitrary limits on them as other cities have done. You can’t regulate something you don’t know about.

As for the competition among the companies, I’m less sure that the City is taking the right approach. (By way of disclosure, I’m friends with three locals who work for Bird.) As has been reported, the City asked interested companies to submit applications, answering a series of questions. A staff committee then graded the applications and made recommendations based on those grades. Unfortunately, it seems that the committee limited its review to the applications, without, it seems, considering the “real world.” (The final decision will now be made by the Director of Planning, David Martin, who apparently is not limited to the applications or bound by the recommendations.)

The result was that the committee recommended two companies for the pilot, neither of which has operated a scooter business previously. One company is owned by Uber, and the other by Lyft.

Uber happens to be one of the most reviled companies in the real world, a company that seems to treat everyone badly. I can’t see why Santa Monica would want to enter into a pilot program with an Uber company.

I’m a fan and user of Lyft’s car-sharing service, and the company is in business already with the Big Blue Bus on a program to give last-mile access to low-income transit users. As I said, however, Lyft has never operated a scooter program before and it shows in Lyft’s application.

The advantage of filing an application when you don’t have experience in a field is that you can say anything. Lyft’s application is full of clauses like, “we are committed to working with the City,” or “Lyft looks forward to working with the City,” or “Lyft proposes to work with the City.” The application tells us that Lyft “is in the process of acquiring” a company it expects will “maximize the quality of our Santa Monica presence.” It’s all air.

The City committee graded Bird’s application low, and after reading it I’m not surprised. It’s shorter and sparser than the Lyft application. Their motto seemed to be, “just the facts, ma’am.”

I also detect, however, in the committee’s shunning of Bird and Lime, the two existing scooter companies, a tendency in Santa Monica to ignore realities in the service of an ideal of fairness. This tendency does not in fact guarantee fairness, and along the way it tends to screw up results.

Ignoring the realities of Bird and Lime reminds me of how, when evaluating proposals to redevelop the Bergamot Station art center, the City ignored Wayne Blank, the master lessee of the galleries for decades, and truly the inventor of the art scene there. Blank was also the owner of important adjacent properties. When the process of determining the development team the City would work with began, it was hard for me to envision the City choosing any team that didn’t include Blank.

But that’s what the City did, and the whole process crashed and burned. The City has had to start all over at Bergamot. That’s what happens when you ignore reality.

Thanks for reading.

My Jonathan Gold story

Along with everyone else in L.A., I am mourning Jonathan Gold, and like it seems nearly everyone, I have a Jonathan Gold story. It’s a small one, as stories about Mr. Gold go, but it is true to character.

But first some necessary back story. Some years ago a cousin of mine went to China to teach English. He met a woman there, from the city of Liuzhou, in Guangxi province in the far south of China. They fell in love, and married. After a few years in China, my cousin returned to the States with his bride. They settled in the Bay Area, but they have visited us here in Santa Monica a couple of times.

Southern California is, of course, the home of many immigrants from all regions of China, who have, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, opened many, many restaurants that feature seemingly infinite varieties of Chinese food, varieties based on specific regions, ingredients, cooking techniques, etc. Jonathan Gold famously wrote about those restaurants and the restaurants of many other diasporas that have reached our shores (and valleys).

Knowing this, prior to visiting us, and because he wanted to be a good husband to his somewhat homesick wife, my cousin would research the Web to find restaurants here that served food from Guangzi. In particular he was looking for the specialty of his wife’s hometown, Liuzhou, a noodle stew called luosifen that is based on a snail and pork bone stock. The first time they visited my cousin found a restaurant, not surprisingly, in the San Gabriel Valley. For the second visit, however, a few years ago, he shocked me by finding a little restaurant in a strip mall on Westwood Boulevard that served luosifen. It’s called Qin West, and it is as tiny (so tiny that it doesn’t have its own restrooms) as it is authentic. Needless to say I’d never heard of it.

Flash forward a few years, to last year, when City of Gold, the documentary about Jonathan Gold, was playing at the Laemmle theaters on Second Street in Santa Monica. My wife and I went to a screening that featured a Q&A afterwards with Mr. Gold and the director of the film. My wife and I loved the movie and very much enjoyed the discussion afterwards.

When we walked out of the theater onto Second Street, Mr. Gold and the director and friends of theirs were standing around on the sidewalk, talking. I screwed up my courage to ask Mr. Gold a question that had been on my mind for years, namely, why are there no truly good and authentic Chinese restaurants on the Westside?

Now, before you say that the answer is obvious—because there are few Chinese, let alone immigrant Chinese, living on the Westside—let me point out that there are good restaurants representing other immigrant communities here. We have good Thai restaurants, good Japanese restaurants, good Mexican (including Oaxacan) restaurants, good Korean barbecue, etc. Restaurants run by immigrant families cooking what they know.

So I asked Mr. Gold my question. He looked at me kindly, but without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “You mean, other than Qin West?”

Thanks for reading.

Tale of Two Projects

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a specific development project in Santa Monica. About a year ago I was busy writing articles about the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), and after that I had my fill of F.A.R.’s and levels of review, etc. I’ve mostly been writing travelogues since then. In the past week, however, two projects, of quite different scale, and located in different parts of the city, caught my eye.

One is a small, apartment complex, only 47 units, with ground-floor retail, on a typically skinny Lincoln Boulevard parcel at Ashland Avenue. The project survived development review last week when City Council members, claiming (accurately) that state law limited their power to block the project, rejected an appeal by neighbors of a Planning Commission approval of the project back in January. (Neighbors Lose Bid to Stop Apartment Complex on Santa Monica’s Lincoln Boulevard).

I live not far from the site and I either drive or walk past it often. It’s a location of classic crudscape, an ugly lot with several decrepit garages that look like they were built with stucco and tin foil.

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The current site at Ashland and Lincoln

It’s incredible to me that neighbors would fight a new apartment building, with attractive ground-floor retail, on that stretch of Lincoln, but then I know it shouldn’t be incredible to me that a few neighbors will do anything to prevent people from moving into their neighborhood.

I remember when City Council, during the hearings on the LUCE, was debating standards for the boulevards. Council members were succumbing to anti-development arguments about “character” (that vague quality that has historically been used to keep apartments and apartment-dwellers out of insular communities). I remember, though, Bobby Shriver, who was sympathetic to the anti’s on other boulevards, admitting that Lincoln Boulevard was pretty ugly and needed new development. Almost ten years later, after another whole planning process for Lincoln Boulevard, a developer is finally building something—an improvement.

For the appeal staff had to prepare a 29-page staff report, which on top of myriad other documents, including a 50-page staff report for the Planning Commission, means that hundreds of pages of reports were created for . . . a 47-unit project that fits within Tier 2 of the applicable zoning. Months and years go by even with a state-law required “project streamlining” and an exemption from environmental review: the application for this little project was filed in March 2016 and “deemed complete” in May 2016. Already two years ago.

I’m shocked that the developers proposed a Tier 2 building. If they had made it a little smaller (a 1.5 F.A.R. instead of the 1.81 it has), it would have qualified under Tier 1, and they could have avoided this review. I’m glad they were brave—if they can make it to the finish line, the site will have another 10 or 15 apartments. (By the way, the development standards still require an insane about of parking—the project will have 151 expensive underground parking spaces for 47 apartments and about 17,000 square feet of retail. On a transit corridor. Crazy.)

Need I mention that the project replaces commercial zoning with residential development? Isn’t that what we want in jobs rich, housing poor, Santa Monica?

Naturally, the process is not over. The developers still need to take the project back to the Architectural Review Board for a formal review and no doubt another appeal to the Planning Commission. After informal ARB review, and comments from the Planning Commission, the developers and their architects must now deal with the usual litany of vague nostrums about “variation” and “visual breaks” and “modulation” and “granularity.” It’s like the ARB members and Planning Commissioners are wine connoisseurs. Here’s a rendering of the current design.

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As seen in this elevation, the building presents a bold statement on an ugly street. While the ARB and Planning Commissioners (and the anti’s) often complain about bland architecture in Santa Monica, their practice is to screw around with any architects who try to use formal structure and rhythm. They make the same amorphous demands on every project, and then complain that buildings are indistinguishable.

The second project that caught my eye—this one was hard to miss—was the return to the planning process of the Frank Gehry designed hotel project at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

I’m not going to write much about this now—surely there are still years to go on this one and I’ll have more opportunities to write about it later. But as the political class settles down to patting itself on the back about how this project now “fits” the new standards in the DCP, and since the developers have made their peace with the DCP, I’ll be perhaps the one person to talk about what we’ve lost.

Which are 60 condominiums. The new plans are pretty close, in terms of programming, to the old plans, except that 60 condos were sacrificed to make the project fit the new zoning and political standards.

Okay, no one is going to shed a tear for the condos, but let me ask—what was bad about them? In a city of 50,000 housing units, they weren’t going to add to traffic in any measurable way, and they weren’t going to destroy the “character” of anyone’s neighborhood. Yes, rich people were going to buy them, but then we already live in a city where many of the critics of the condos live in houses that are now worth $1,000 per square foot as teardowns.

What the condos would have done is turn thin air into millions of dollars each year of taxes for schools, healthcare, public safety, housing and services for the homeless, etc. Yes, the proverbial bogeymen of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks or—Heaven forbid—young Silicon Beach entrepreneurs, might buy some of the condos and only use them a few weeks a year, but others might be bought by elderly Santa Monica homeowners wishing to downsize but stay put.

What was bad about the condos is that they disturbed the false halo of radicalism that the political class in Santa Monica believes crowns their heads. Santa Monicans are mostly on the Left, and so the rhetoric that comes from the most conservative voices in town must use the language of revolution. Oh, those greedy developers! The neighborhood activists and their politicians use words like “community character” and act as if they’re about to storm the barricades of their own privilege, but it’s all about pleasing people who, in the opposite of a progressive agenda, fear change.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.

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In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.

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At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.

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This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.

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Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

Seven Days in Spain

If you read my Norway travelogue, you may recall that my wife Janet is a professor and that this year she’s on sabbatical, which means that she’s been free to accept invitations to give papers at conferences around the world. That’s why we were in Norway, because the conference was in Oslo. I’m the lucky “plus one,” and in October as such I accompanied Janet to Spain. This time the conference was in Barcelona.

In planning the trip we tried to balance the distance factor—we didn’t want to go 8,000 miles for only a few days—with the “haven’t we been vacationing a lot lately” factor and not use the invitation to Barcelona as an excuse for another long vacation. We settled on nine days, which would give us about seven days in Spain after netting out the travel time. We flew over Monday night, Oct. 23, arriving Tuesday afternoon, and returned Wednesday morning, Nov. 1.

October 2017 was exciting in Barcelona. No kidding. A couple of weeks before we arrived the Catalan government had defied the Spanish government and conducted an election on whether to declare independence. Ninety percent of the votes were “Sí,” but only 43% of voters voted.

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The no-shows and polls showed a divided populace, but nonetheless, and while we were there, the Catalan parliament voted for independence. This triggered the government in Madrid to invoke Article 155 of their constitution and take over the regional government. The government threatened the Catalan leaders with prosecution for treason, and as we were leaving Spain Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan leader, had fled for Belgium, saying he would not return unless he believed he would get a fair trial.

If the Catalan crisis provided the current events context for our trip, the historical context was provided by George Orwell’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which I had begun reading before I’d left Santa Monica and finished in Barcelona. Orwell described a violent and desperate time. Today Barcelona is cosmopolitan, prosperous and peaceful. It’s everyone’s favorite city, inundated by eight million tourists a year. It is rather different from the city Orwell chronicled, but as usual when you read Orwell, every word seemed relevant.

Fortunately, we had two other, very-much-alive, sources for what had been going on in Barcelona. Two friends from Santa Monica, Mike and Lou, had spent most of the previous month there in a long and long overdue vacation. They hadn’t quite gone native, but they had been there during the voting and had been eyewitnesses to the attempts of the national government to stop the vote. We met Mike and Lou for dinner the night we arrived (Tues., Oct. 23). We were staying in a hotel near the university (where Janet’s conference would take place) on the Ronda Sant Antoni. This was near where Mike and Lou were staying, and they chose a great nearby place for dinner: the Moritz brewery. Moritz is a Barcelona brewer that began brewing in a brewery on Ronda Sant Antoni in the mid-19th century. In recent years they hired architect Jean Nouvel to turn the upper floors of the brewery into a bistro, while keeping the brewing going downstairs. We had a great meal of fried fish and draft beer (brewed on the premises).

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Our friends Mike and Lou at the Moritz brewery restaurant

The next day, Wednesday, would be Janet’s only day of tourism in Barcelona before the conference began on Thursday. We’d made plans to do two things: visit Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in the morning and the Picasso Museum in the afternoon.

We’d last been in Barcelona in 2016, and missed going inside La Sagrada because we hadn’t known enough to buy a ticket in advance. We’d been there in 2008, and gone up in the towers, but at that time the nave had not been completed and wasn’t open to the public. This time we made sure to get tickets in advance (which is easily done on-line).

La Sagrada is not a cathedral, but it’s cathedral sized. The interior is beautiful, even better conceived (IMO) than the outside. The metaphor inside is of a forest, with “trunks” of trees holding up a ceiling of branches. Colored stone is used to great effect, as are the colored windows. In the center, there are four massive but elegant pillars, one for each of the evangelists, rising above the altar. These pillars, it’s hard to believe, will support the tallest of Gaudí’s 18 towers—the “Jesus” tower that will rise 560 feet. Here are some pictures.

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All four sides of the church are now nearly completed. My reaction to them is that I hope the new stone that the architects are using will weather as well as the old stone. Otherwise, the exterior is going to look a lot like a Disneyland version of a church.

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After La Sagrada, we made our way to the Picasso Museum by way of the Metro. The museum is in the medieval part of town, the Barri Gòtic, and on the way we stopped in a little bar for a couple of tapas. I don’t have any pictures from the museum, because they don’t allow photographs, but just as everyone loves Barcelona, everyone loves Picasso, and the young Picasso is particularly endearing. The museum has mostly work from when he was young and living in Barcelona and then from when he was old (notably his paintings based on Velázquez’s Las Meninas and ceramics). In both cases, young and old Picasso, you have to say to yourself, “Wow, I would like to have known this guy.”

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Barri Gòtic street

The next day (Thurs., Oct. 26 if you’re keeping track) I was on my own as Janet had her conference to go to. (One note on that: when Janet and her colleagues arrived at the university for the conference, there was a student demonstration going on about the independence issue; that was as close as either of us came to any demonstrations for or against independence.) I headed straight up to Gaudí’s Park Güell. As with La Sagrada, to enter the “monumental zone” of the park one now needs a ticket, and my ticket was for 10:00. I decided to go earlier so that I could start at the top of the park and work my way down to the monuments. This entails taking the Metro to the Vallcarca stop and then walking up and up many stairway-streets to get to park entrances high above the city. The rewards are great views. Here are two pix: the color is from my iPhone, and the black and white one is from my 35mm camera. In both you can see La Sagrada with its telltale cranes.

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One reason I wanted to go to Park Güell this year was since the last time, in 2016, that I’d been in Barcelona I’d digitized negatives from pictures I’d taken from my first trip to Spain, in 1973, and I wanted to see if I could take pictures from the same angles now to compare. Here are some of the 1973 pictures and new ones from my iPhone.

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A lot more people now.

From Park Güell I took a long walk, ending up at La Boqueria Market, the famous one off La Rambla. I try not to take too many food photographs, or at least I try not to show them to strangers, but food is an important part of culture, and the lunch I had at a counter in the market, of a whole grilled fish, with a glass of the local Moritz beer, says as much about Barcelona, or as much about Mediterranean culture, as a museum.

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While I was in the market, the Catalan parliament was meeting, and TV screens around the market were broadcasting news reports. I saw this screen, and photographed it, because it seemed to show the big news that Puigdemont had decided to defuse the crisis by dissolving parliament and calling new elections. After all, that’s what it says. But that is not what happened. Puigdemont did not call for new elections, and the next day the parliament passed Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Then Madrid invoked Article 155, Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders fled, and the air seemed to escape from the independence balloon. At least for the present….

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I then embarked on a bit of historical tourism. As I mentioned above, to prepare myself for this visit to Barcelona I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Whenever I read Orwell it always seems like he’s writing for us today. Reading about his half-year in 1937 spent first fighting fascists in the trenches in Aragon (northwest of Catalonia) and then escaping arrest by a loyalist government doing the bidding of Stalin, was strangely helpful in understanding what was going on today in Catalonia.

In January 1937 Orwell joined a militia organized by the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party. POUM had joined with the Anarchists in a proletarian revolution that had taken place in 1936, after Franco’s fascist coup and revolt, and were now part of the government and resistance against Franco. In the winter of 1937 Orwell served in the (cold and miserable) trenches, in the front opposite the fascist-held town of Huesca (more on Huesca later) until late April, when he got a leave and went to Barcelona. His wife was there, staying in the Hotel Continental on La Rambla. Orwell’s leave was ill-timed: it put him in the middle of the “May Days” of Catalonia, violence that took place in Barcelona in the first week of May 1937 between, on one side, the Spanish Republic and the Catalan government, supported by the Communist Party (allied with the Soviet Union, which was the major source of arms for the government and thus had great influence), and, on the other, the Anarchist labor unions and the anti-Stalinist Left.

This was the civil war within the Civil War that eventually doomed the Spanish Republic. While Orwell found himself on the side of, and was loyal to, the Anarchists and POUM, he recognized that the strategy of the Republic (and Communists) made more sense. Their view was that defeating Franco was the first priority, and revolution could come later. The Anarchists and POUM said revolution had to come at the same time. Unfortunately the motives of the Communists also reflected Stalin’s preoccupation with annihilating the influence of Trotsky—the Kremlin considered the POUM to be Trotskyite—and of course there was never any love lost between Communists and Anarchists. (Meanwhile, today in America’s Trump era the lessons about the Left consuming itself with doctrinal conflicts while the Right wins need to be remembered.)

During the May Days a detachment of guards from the government took over a café on La Rambla called Café Moka that was next to the POUM headquarters in the Hotel Rivoli. In turn Orwell was assigned by the POUM to take a position with a group of militiamen on the roof of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts across La Rambla from Café Moka. Orwell referred to the building by the name of a theater in its ground floor, the Poliorama. The government guards and Orwell and his fellow militiamen warily observed each other—both sides agreed that they would fire only if fired upon, and shared beers. Orwell wrote that he spent the time he was on the roof reading Penguin paperbacks.

That afternoon I couldn’t resist retracing Orwell’s steps. Everything is still there. Here are picture of the Rivoli Hotel and Café Moka, which have been remodeled:

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And here’s the Poliorama theater, followed by a shot looking up at the roof where Orwell was positioned to look down on the guards in Café Moka.

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Poliorama Theater in the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts

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Looking up at the Royal Academy roof, where Orwell read Penguins and watched the guards sent to watch POUM headquarters.

Orwell also describes fire coming from an “octagonal” tower, namely the Church of Santa Maria del Pi; here’s a picture of the tower today, as it terminates a vista between two modern buildings:

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The May Days conflict ultimately, if temporarily, was resolved, and Orwell returned to the front, where he was wounded seriously. (He was shot in the neck; a doctor told him that if the bullet had been one millimeter to one side, he would have died.) After recuperating in Barcelona he was released from hospital just in time for a much more serious crackdown on the Anarchists and the POUM. When he reached the lobby of the Hotel Continental to rejoin his wife, she immediately told him to vanish, and he went into hiding. For several days and nights Orwell was on the run, until with the help of the British consul he was able to get his papers in order to escape to France.

The Hotel Continental still exists, although, according to desk staff I spoke to there, it is much smaller than it was in the 30s. Here’s a picture of its entrance on La Rambla.

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In the hotel lobby, there is a cabinet displaying a copy of Homage to Catalonia opened to a page where Orwell writes about the hotel.

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It was wonderful to commune with Orwell, and mind-blowing to try to imagine today what La Rambla was like in such desperate times. A time when La Boqueria was not a huge tourist magnet, but simply a market where Orwell bought a hunk of cheese that kept him going for a few days.

I read that since the 1992 Olympics the number of tourists who visit Barcelona each year has grown from one million to eight million. Surely it’s a good thing that tens of millions of people move around Europe in peace today, but the stresses on cities that absorb the love are real. Here’s a poster I photographed in a neighborhood between La Rambla and the university.

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That evening Janet was going out to dinner with colleagues from the conference, and I was on my own. I decided to go back to the Moritz brewery restaurant. On the menu there is a section called “The Great Brewery Classics” with “recipes from all over Europe that have become part of beer-drinking lore and legend.” The first item is “Cockerel a la Moritz with chips, an “FMB specialty” described as “Poussin roasted in a tin of Moritz. Recipe by Montse Guillén and FoodCulturalMuseum.” That sounded interesting, and somehow Catalan, and so I ordered it.

What did I get, but one of my favorites: beer can chicken!

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Which made me consider the limits of localism. Catalans celebrate their culture, while in the U.S., Louisianans take credit for beer can chicken. Today aren’t we all globalized?

The next day was Friday, Oct. 27, and I had nothing scheduled except a lunch with the only two Catalans I know, Andreu and Rocio, whom I met through a friend in L.A. I was looking forward to hearing some insights from them about the political situation.

But I wasn’t meeting them until 1:30, and I spent the morning wandering around town. My path took me back to La Rambla and it was on a street just off La Rambla that I lucked into a sight to see that I should have had on my list in the first place, namely the Palau Güell. The Palau is the urban mansion that the young Antoni Gaudí designed for Eusebi Güell, the industrialist and developer who became Gaudí’s great patron. The palace was restored and opened to the public in 2011. Here is a slideshow of a few photographs from a spectacular place.

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After the Palau, I rushed over to the restaurant that Andreu and Rocio had chosen, Casa Leonardo. I had told them I wanted to eat Catalan food, and they picked Casa Leonardo not only because it served traditional food, but also because it was a place where, over the decades, writers and artists had hung out. It was in a neighborhood near the port with many Islamic immigrants—many men and women in traditional Islamic clothing, and halal butchers and grocery stores on every block. I have no idea what immigrants in Barcelona think about Catalan nationalism.

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Andreu and Rocio did have views about the independence question. Andreu’s family has been Catalan forever. He said he voted for Puigdemont’s party, the conservative pro-independence party. Rocio’s family only moved to Catalonia in 1940, from the Cantabrigia region on the north coast of Spain. She had not voted for a separatist party, but she said she was now ready to leave Spain after Madrid’s reaction to the referendum on independence. However, what I found most interesting was that they both said that “no one” (or, at least not people they knew) had voted for the independence parties with the expectation that they would in fact declare independence. The idea was to strengthen the position of the regional government in negotiating more autonomy. They thought that Puigdemont had overplayed his hand, and they said he had done so because of pressure from the left-wing separatist party. Catalonia was not going to become independent simply because it wanted to. Now it was all a mess.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the Catalans who want independence, notwithstanding that I admire them and their history. As a citizen of the U.S., I am steeped in the virtues of a federal system and somewhat constitutionally (in both senses of the word) allergic to nationalism based on ethnicity, or language, or self-defined notions of “culture.” The Mediterranean cultures seem similar to me; although as a blundering American I surely miss the subtleties. I don’t believe the world needs to have more countries.

However, when I got back home I did some reading that put the Catalan case in perspective. I hadn’t seen anything about this in the U.S. press (not that I can claim to have followed the story exhaustively), but from my new reading I learned that in 2006 the Catalans had negotiated broader autonomy with the socialist government then in power in Madrid. But in 2010 the Supreme Court of Spain invalidated much of the deal. Now the conservatives are in power in Madrid, and they don’t want to make a new deal that would give the Catalans more autonomy and pass muster constitutionally. If I were a Catalan, I’d be frustrated, too.

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Another Barri Gotic street (showing 800 years of change?)

The next morning, Saturday the 28th, Janet and I picked up a rental car and started a drive across northern Spain. We had four more days in Spain, and had made plans to meet friends of ours in Bilbao. This was one of those serendipitous things, where we found out after we’d made our travel plans, but didn’t know what we were going to do with those four days, that these friends would also be in Spain. Not only that, but these friends were Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, two of the best and most knowledgeable urbanists and architects in, dare I say it, the world. I expected not only to have a lot of fun, but also to learn a lot about the cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, where we’d be spending time with them.

Our route across the foothills of the Pyrenees also allowed for more George Orwell memorializing. In the winter of 1937 Orwell was in a POUM militia unit in the trenches opposite the town of Huesca, which the fascists held. The slogan of the Republic was, “tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca;” Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, ruefully expresses the hope that someday he’ll have coffee in Huesca.

As it happened, our visit to Huesca was something of a modern touristic disaster. In our car we followed Google Maps directions to the town’s cathedral located way up in the medieval center of the town, which turned out to be a monumental mistake, since there is no parking there and naturally we were ascending by way of narrow and twisting medieval streets. We kept going and descended more medieval streets to a level that must have been the 19th century expansion of the town, complete with a long plaza, where we found a place to park (which turned out to be a mistake, because I got a parking ticket for reasons I could not figure out). There we had lunch, and yes, there I had a coffee in Huesca.

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Homage to Orwell and to the Republic: me having coffee in Huesca

From Huesca we drove to Bilbao. There we were going to meet Stefanos for a special experience: attending a soccer game at San Mames, Bilbao’s new, urban-core-adjacent stadium. Stefanos is a fan of FC-Barcelona, known as Barça, perhaps the most beloved fútbol team in the world. (Stefanos gets his devotion to the team “honestly,” as he once lived in Barcelona.) Stefanos was spending a few weeks in Spain on various types of business, and had carefully scheduled his travels so that he could take in a couple of Barça games, including the one in Bilbao. When we joined the Polyzoides-Moule expedition, we naturally went on-line and got tickets ourselves. (Liz, unfortunately, was flying into Bilbao from Italy the next day, and so she missed the game.)

Getting into the hotel in Bilbao was a little adventure. As we arrived, following Google Maps’ directions, we found the entrance to the hotel blocked by a huge bus and a crowd of people surrounding it. The bus said “FCB” on the back: it was the team bus for Barça. The team was staying at the hotel and was about to head to the stadium. We had to circle the block a couple of times before finding out what to do with our car, so that we could check in. After checking in Janet and I took a cab to the stadium, arriving just as the game began. Stefanos was already there. The stadium is directly accessible to the downtown grid of streets, not separated by a parking lot. Here’s a picture showing the scene as we approached.

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Arriving at the Bilbao stadium on foot

I recently experimented with walking to Dodger Stadium from Chinatown. That experiment will someday be the subject of another blog, but in the meantime, here’s a picture showing the comparable approach.

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Arriving at Dodger Stadium on foot.

The game was tremendous fun. The Bilbao team played tough, but they were (and their fans knew it) ultimately outclassed by Barça, with its world-class players exemplified by Argentinean Lionel Messi. Messi scored a goal about halfway through the game, but nonetheless it was a hard fought 1-0 contest, with Bilbao making many strong attacks on goal, until Barça sealed the victory with a second goal only a minute or so before time ran out. Here’s a picture of the Barça attack just before Messi scored his goal.

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After the game, around 11:00, Stefanos, Janet and I wandered into the city on the way back to our hotel. We hadn’t eaten dinner, and late at night is when Spanish restaurants start filling up. We found a wonderful, traditional place, La Cocina de María Antonia, on the main east-west street a block or so from the stadium. The Basque country is considered the heart of gastronomy in Spain, with the best traditional food and the most innovative chefs, and this restaurant was a great start. I immediately liked it because there was a long table where people were eating family style. It was kind of a bistro, very much on the traditional side. I had a sirloin steak (un solomilo) that was among the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Next morning, Sunday, Oct. 29, Janet and walked around the hotel’s neighborhood, which was in the center of the 19th century expansion of Bilbao. After some looking (it must be a neighborhood where folks like to sleep late on Sundays) we found a bar open for coffee and pastries. After that we walked across the center of town to meet Stefanos and Liz (who was arriving that morning from Italy where she’d been working on a project there with the American Academy) and some of their Bilbao friends and colleagues for a tapas lunch.

It was kind of coincidence, but one reason we were meeting Stefanos and Liz in Bilbao is that Stefanos is working on a project to study 19th century urban expansion in Spain. What he told us was that in the 19th century, with population increasing because of industrialization, scores of Spanish cities adopted formal plans to expand beyond their medieval centers. (As was the case in Oslo, too.) The most famous of these plans is Cerda’s for Barcelona, but the contrast between narrow medieval streets, which were themselves often (but not in Bilbao) corruptions of Roman urban grids, and the expansive grids of boulevards, avenues and streets emanating from them, is evident in cities all over Spain, including Bilbao.

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In Bilbao the division is clear. The old city, the Casco Viejo, is on the right bank of the river and is built around seven closely-spaced narrow streets emanating from the river (Las Siete Callesˆ—on the map they are right under the “Bilboko Donejakue katedrala”). The railroad station is on the other side of the river, and the new city, El Ensanche (literally, the “enlargement”), extends from the tracks and fills in the great bend the river makes. As you can see the streets are straighter (not that the Siete Calles aren’t straight) and the blocks are bigger, and there are grand boulevards emanating from a central oval.

One thing about those 19th century planners, they either loved the convenience of diagonal boulevards for transportation purposes, or for the opportunities for terminated vistas they create, or both (probably). Here’s a picture that shows, for better or for worse, the varieties of architecture that can sprout on a grid in a century or so. Massively terminating the vista is César Pelli’s Iberdrola Tower (completed in 2012 on formerly industrial land between the formal 19th century grid and the river), but the closer buildings at street level (this is at the San José Plaza) are worth looking at, too. Moving around the intersection from right to left, on the right is a traditional pre-modernism bank of buildings, then there’s the church (Iglesia de San José), a circa-1900 pastiche of styles, mostly neo-gothic, and across the street from the church is a mid-century building that hasn’t, to be kind, aged well either in terms of its materials or its style (and which happens to contain offices of the UGT, the socialist labor federation).

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The continued vitality of these neighborhoods and districts more than a century after they were laid out and subdivided, regardless of architecture and particularly after the advent of the automobile, shows that it’s easier to adapt a good grid to the car and maintain a good urban environment than it is to design a city to accommodate cars that will be serviceable for any kind of living other than one that is automotive. It’s entropy: once you dissipate human energies over a wider landscape to accommodate cars, those energies cannot be harnessed again to make something more synergistic. “Suburban retrofits” are beyond difficult to pull off. But a good grid can, with some jury-rigging, like this underground parking lot in Bilbao, accommodate automobiles well enough to satisfy modern life, while maintaining the human energy of a city.

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We kept walking and met our friends for lunch at a tapas bar, Café Iruña, crowded with families; we mostly stood at the bar eating, although at a certain point Janet and Liz found room to sit.

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The bar was adjacent to a delightful little park, Las Jardines de Albia, the kind of one-block urban oasis with a little fountain, benches, and two statues of historical figures.

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Las Jardines de Albia

On the north side of the park is one of the few pre-19th century buildings in the Ensanche, a village church from the 16th century (which itself replaced a 12th century church), La Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando, that the expanding city swallowed up.

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After lunch we were ready for the big event: the Museo Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s most famous building and the building that launched … the Bilbao Effect.

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Entering the Bilbao Guggenheim

Of the four of us, only Janet had previously seen the Guggenheim, on a trip she’d made with her mother about 10 years ago. I don’t want to write in detail about what Stefanos and Liz thought about the building, since they might write themselves about it and I’m not likely to do justice to their views if I try to summarize them, but I believe I can safely say that the building knocked all of us out. (Stefanos and Liz can correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m a frequent user of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which Gehry designed prior to designing the Bilbao Guggenheim, but which was built after it. I love Disney Hall and bask in that love every time I attend a concert there, but the building in Bilbao is even more impressive. It’s an exploded and expanded Disney Hall. Disney is one major space, the auditorium, surrounded by a skin of much smaller spaces. That’s form following function, but it makes for a cramped and dark form. A museum building functions differently. The Bilbao program consists of a collection of large galleries, one after another, surrounding the core atrium. Since the core didn’t have to be sound and (largely) light proof as with the concert hall, the central atrium of the Guggenheim could be open and, let’s say, cathedral-like.

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Which makes sense since museums are, when it comes to public and monumental buildings, the cathedrals of our time. Every city has to have one (or more). Compare this picture of the central atrium of Bilbao with my photo above of the nave of La Sagrada Familia. Or compare this picture of windows in the Guggenheim with Gaudí’s windows in the Palau Güell.

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If the key to modernist architecture is architects using the new structural tools that were available to create nontraditional forms, the connecting tissue between an “artisanal” modernist like Gaudí and a contemporary architect like Gehry is obvious.

Stefanos, Liz and I spent a lot of time discussing a particular feature of the Bilbao atrium, a sculptural covering Gehry placed over an elevator (and there is another covering a stairway). In my view this is decorative architecture and is evidence of the distinction between what we call contemporary architecture and both high and post modernism.

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One of the most impressive great rooms in the Guggenheim is the large space that the museum has given over to a series of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures. I love Serra’s big sculptures, but I dislike it when they are cooped up inside, such as in the Broad pavilion at LACMA. Serra’s monuments demand the outdoors: the center of a large plaza or, even better, I’d like to see one in a field of wheat. But they work in the big and long space in Bilbao, especially from above. (Much was made of the fact that as an old steel town, Bilbao is a suitable location for Serra’s big works.) Here are some pictures.

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Variations in scale also work well in the Guggenheim. The transitions between the big spaces were nicely intimate, and the “horde” of visitors seemed to find the place quite comfortable.

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We spent a couple of hours inside, touring the building and viewing the collection. The collection is fine, except that it’s more or less the same collection of artists you’ll see in any contemporary art collection in the world. The world is full now of billionaires who want to be the Albert Barnes of their generation, but they don’t have the individualistic perspective that Barnes had. They buy from the same dealers and listen to the same experts, who also tell museums of contemporary art what to exhibit (and, not coincidentally, legitimize the valuations when the collectors on the boards of trustees donate the art and get the tax deductions). Cynically I know that these massive investments in museums to house these works will influence future judgments about was the good art of our era, but nonetheless I expect that future historians of art will be iconoclastic, as historians usually are, and some of this stuff, perhaps a large amount of it, will end up in storage. I ask: who will be the first art historian to demolish the pomposity, excessive self-importance, and implied moral superiority of post-War art that was stripped of content so that it wouldn’t offend corporate collectors?

When we exited the museum, it had begun to drizzle. The building (and Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Maman”) looked good wet.

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Finally here’s a picture showing Stefanos and Liz in a characteristic pose: taking a picture of architecture.

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That night we ate at a social club affiliated with the Basque nationalist political party, with entry to it courtesy of a friend of Stefanos and Liz, a massively erudite urbanist and historian. I can’t recount the whole of the conversation, but I remember being impressed that this fellow felt that Spain should host a conference to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the transfer of power in 117 from Trajan to Hadrian, two Roman emperors who were both Iberians. I mean, why wait for the 2,000th anniversary?

The next morning, Monday, Oct. 30, the four of us walked around the old city of Bilbao, on the other side of the river, the zone of the “seven streets.” Those streets are narrow, as this photo shows.

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When we were there, a teacher was taking a bunch of kids on a walk. Yes, people still live there.

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There were more terminated vistas, but the angles were much different, because of the close quarters.

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To get an idea about how valuable space was in the old city before its expansion, look at this picture, which shows how shops were built into the spaces between the buttresses of a medieval church.

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Here’s a final picture from our tour of the old city.

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Dried and/or salted fish, bacalao, was integral to the history of Europe and, as in Bergen, Norway, that was particularly true with respect to the Basque Country. Basque fisherman were fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and salt harvested from the waters of the Bay of Biscay was crucial to preserving it. Given how depleted cod stocks have become, I was pleased to see that bacalao was still a staple, as the store window shows.

From Bilbao we were headed to San Sebastián up the coast towards France. Our first stop was in the little port town of Bermeo. By now we were in two cars, as Stefanos and Liz had picked up their rental, and when we arrived there we had the usual comical experiences of trying to find (i) parking, and (ii) each other. But ultimately we managed to eat lunch in a restaurant that Stefanos and Liz found on the second floor of a municipal building. It was some kind of club, but open to the public, where the “burghers” of the town and (assuming the burghers are still mostly men, which seemed to be the case) their wives, meet. It was a wonderfully bourgeois experience (people who know me know that I mean no condescension when I use the word bourgeois). The prix fixe menu included two substantial courses, dessert, and wine, and service was decidedly unhurried. My first course was memorable. I ordered soup, thinking that soup would be relatively light, as for nearly a week I’d been eating way too much, but what arrived was a tureen with easily enough soup for three people. It might have been the best bean soup, heavy with bacon and sausage, that I’ve ever had. Janet had a Basque pepper stuffed with mushrooms and she said it was the best thing she’d eaten on the trip so far. The good people of the Basque Country know what’s good.

It was late by the time our long lunch ended, but we had just enough time before dark to stop in Gernika, better known as Guernica, on our way to San Sebastián. We arrived as a festival was ending, and local farmers and other food purveyors were tearing down booths where they’d been selling their goods. We walked around the center of town, nearly all of which has been rebuilt since the bombing in 1937, since the bombing destroyed nearly all of the city center.

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Rebuilt Gernika/Guernica

One can’t hear the word Guernica without its conjuring up Picasso’s painting. This made me think back to the Bilbao Guggenheim’s collection, and post-War art in general, neutered as it was of political content, made safe for corporations, foundations and plutocrats. Other than perhaps Diego Rivera’s destroyed mural at Rockefeller Center, there’s no painting that better than Guernica marks the dividing line between the days when artists engaged themselves directly in their social, economic and political contexts and a time when museums of modern and contemporary art, their employed curators and the attendant dealers, became the gatekeepers, denaturing art along the way; when expressing political and social ideas in art, or even using art to describe or respond to reality, became passé, and artists primarily expressed their dissidence not with their art, but either by self-destructive alienation or by becoming part of a contrived “counter-culture.”

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Seen in Gernika

By the time we left Gernika/Guernica it was dark. We headed directly to San Sebastián along the coast road. San Sebastián is the gastronomic epicenter of Spain; perhaps, if you believe some experts, of the entire western world. This status is predicated on a top-to-bottom food culture, from the pintxos in a local bar to the highest per capita count of Michelin stars in the world. Part of this is because the Basque Country is so well favored when it comes to food itself: it’s a green and fertile land of small farms that also has a great fishing tradition and a history of trade that brought in foods and flavors from around the world.

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Vegetables and fish for sale in San Sebastián

Another part is cultural: while Basque home cooking by women must by all rights be at the heart of the food culture (I wish I had a way to get some of that!), there is also a longstanding tradition of male cooking clubs (las sociedades gastronómicas) that supported the professionalization of cooking, resulting in a great tradition of (often innovative) restaurants. Food and cooking is everywhere; jumping ahead to the next day, here’s a photo I took of a kids cooking class taking place in front of the big San Sebastián market.

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Liz took this culinary tradition into account when she planned the visit to San Sebastián, booking reservations at two of the great restaurants there, for dinner the night we arrived and for lunch the next day.

Dinner (this was Monday night, Oct. 30) was at Rekondo, a restaurant that describes its food as alta cocina vasca, i.e., “haute Basque cuisine.” And that’s what their food was: we walked into the restaurant and passed on our left a grill over a wood fire, an appetizing way to start a meal. I can’t remember what we all ordered, but it was from a menu that celebrated the ingredients themselves.

The next morning we walked around the town. Our hotel was located near where the big beach, one of the beaches that made San Sebastián a famous summer resort for royalty and those who hung out with royalty, meets up with the avenue that marks the dividing line between the medieval town and San Sebastián’s own 19th century expansion. Since I live in Santa Monica, another city on a beach, also famous for tourism, it was fun to consider the similarities and the differences.

Like Santa Monica, San Sebastián has a beautiful beach, with a walkway and park, and hotels, overlooking it, playgrounds and a carousel (theirs in the park, ours on our pier), and a City Hall nearby. Here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s City Hall, as seen behind a playground in the park:

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That’s a grand edifice, I’d say, for a little city’s town hall. San Sebastián’s population of about 186,000 is about twice that of Santa Monica, but the situations of the two cities are quite different. San Sebastián is the most important city in its immediate, mostly rural, hinterland, while Santa Monica sits on the edge of, and provides the biggest beach for, a metropolis with a population nearly half that of Spain.

One benefit of traveling with architectural experts like Stefanos and Liz is that they can point out architectural history that would otherwise escape my notice. Just across the ocean promenade from the ornate City Hall is, it turns out, one of the treasures of modernism. It’s the Club Náutico from 1929, designed by José Manuel Aizpurúa, at the dawn of modernism, and a building that, as Stefanos explained to me, encapsulates all the rules that Le Corbusier was establishing for the new architecture.

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Club Náutico de San Sebastián

Turning around to look in the opposite direction, here’s a picture of the beach at San Sebastián with the hotels that face it.

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At some point in history someone, probably in that City Hall, had the good idea of declaring a height limit, so that all the hotels would create a uniform (and pleasing) façade facing the beach. The hotels all max out at the same height, which corresponds typically to eight or nine stories. At home in Santa Monica, the height of new hotel buildings proposed along Ocean Avenue, facing Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, has been, for about 10 years, the subject of much controversy. There have been several proposals for towers, at least one as high as 22 stories. As I look at this picture of the wall of hotels lining the beach in San Sebastián I, as a Santa Monican, can’t help but smile—but ruefully. While on one hand the hotels in San Sebastián show that one should not need to exceed nine stories to build a nice hotel, on the other hand the scope of development along the beach there would horrify the opponents of the hotel towers in Santa Monica.

Meanwhile here’s a picture of San Sebastián’s carousel. Aside from its beauty it’s something of a metaphor for urban development in a European town vs. urban development in America: its diameter is much less than the carousel in Santa Monica, meaning it sprawls less, but it’s two stories, meaning it’s more dense.

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The medieval district of San Sebastián is small, about 20 tight blocks. If the best food is in Spain is in the Basque Country, and if San Sebastián is the Basque food capital, then these blocks are the absolute ground zero for gastronomy in Spain. That status is based on pintxos, snacks that by the time lunch is starting are piled up in bars throughout the old city. We had a big lunch planned (more on that coming up) and in anticipation of that none of us wanted to fill ourselves up, but we agreed that in any future trip to San Sebastián we would have to schedule a grazing tour of pintxo bars for one meal.

As for that lunch: Liz in her understated manner had simply told Janet and me that she’d made a reservation at a good restaurant for lunch that day. But that morning Janet and I were doubtful. We had a long drive ahead of us, about six hours to Barcelona, from where we’d be flying back to L.A. the next morning. We were thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a big lunch and not get on the road until late afternoon. (You know how those Spanish lunches are.) So when we met Liz and Stefanos for breakfast, we were saying that maybe Liz should drop us from the reservation, and that we get on the road.

Fortunately Liz got back to us and said, something like, “well, you know, the reservation is at one o’clock, and maybe you should come and have a first course. It’s going to be good.” She didn’t overplay it, but that was perfect. We kind of looked at each other and said, “Sure, let’s do it. The drive is going to be mostly in the dark anyway.”

That was a good decision. It turned out that the reservation was at the most famous and historic restaurant in San Sebastián, Arzak, the three-star restaurant of chef Juan Mari Arzak, who runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena. (Elena is the fourth generation Arzak to cook in the restaurant.) I don’t follow the world of celebrity or celebrated chefs much, and so I learned all this later, but Arzak, at 75, is the dean of Spanish chefs and the mentor and/or inspiration for the next generation of them.

I respect chefs who make food into something artistic and experimental, but the food needs to stay real, and the everyday holiness of meals with friends and family should never be sacrificed to pretension. Having declared that (somewhat pretentiously, I know), I loved Arzak. To begin with, the staff genuinely wanted us to enjoy what we were going to eat. The first thing the waiter said to us was that they wanted us to try as many dishes as possible, but that they knew this was lunch and we might not want to each so much, and for that reason nearly every dish on the menu was available in a half-portion. They did this because they hoped that each of us would have an appetizer, a fish course and a meat course. This was so solicitous of the customer’s comfort (and also kind to the credit card).

The other aspect of Arzak that I appreciated was that even though the food was elaborate in its preparation and presentation (Señor Arzak has described his cooking as “evolutionary, investigatory, and avant-garde”), the food was fundamentally Basque, made from the ingredients the region is famous for. We had dishes made from sole, prawns, lobster, squid, monkfish, pigeon and what we had learned (at Rekondo the previously night) was a particular Basque favorite, kokotxas, namely the bit of meat at the bottom of a fish’s head. Many of the flavors were exotic, and the food, particularly the amuse-bouche snacks, was artfully presented, but the food was certainly identifiable as . . . food.

It was a memorable meal, shared with friends, and what with the half-portion policy, when Janet and I hit the road around 3:30 (Señor Arzak himself wishes you well when you depart) we were not incapacitated.

Our six-hour drive to a hotel we had booked near the Barcelona airport was mostly in the dark. For some stretches, when I say dark I mean absolutely dark. Janet took the wheel for the middle stretch, which included the road between Zaragoza and the coast, and there were times when looking to the south from the passenger seat I could not see one light. Spain is a big country with some wide-open and empty spaces.

Our hotel was an “airport hotel,” but in a real neighborhood. After checking in we found a tapas bar nearby where, fittingly, the TV was playing a cooking competition show that looked like the Spanish version of Top Chef. For our last dinner in Spain we ordered anchovies, olives, mussels and a lamb stew. Here’s a photo of our meal halfway through our consumption of it. Different from our meal at Arzak, and also delicious.

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The next day we returned to L.A.

Thanks for reading.

 

About a week in Norway

This is an account, illustrated with iPhone photographs, of about a week my wife and I spent in in Norway — Sept. 5-11, 2017. We live in Santa Monica, California, and this blog is usually about Santa Monica politics, but what the hell, I’ll expand my scope. At least this piece is about a couple of healthy cities—Oslo and Bergen.

We flew Sept. 4 to Norway from Boston because we sandwiched our Norway trip into a trip to New England to visit our son and friends. Our flight arrived in Oslo the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 5. (Norwegian Air runs an inexpensive and convenient non-stop service between Boston and Oslo twice a week.) We took the airport train into town, and walked from the Sentrum train station to our hotel on the Karl Johans Gate (“Gate” in Norwegian means street—nothing to do with a gate). Karl Johans Gate is the main, limited to pedestrians, axis running through the center of the city. (The hotel, the Comfort Hotel at 12 Karl Johans Gate, was a comfortable modern hotel situated in back of a pleasant courtyard off the street, with an excellent (and typically sumptuous) breakfast buffet.)

The immediate reason for our trip to Norway was that my wife, Janet, would be giving a paper at a conference at the University of Oslo. Since she’d be tied up at the conference for two days, the day we arrived would be her only day for tourism in Oslo. We figured that if one could only see one sight there, it had to be Munch’s “The Scream.” After having a bite to eat at a bar, we headed to the National Gallery.

Which was fun. It’s not a huge collection, but in any case we only had time and energy (because we were crashing from our overnight flight) to go to the second floor for the 19th and early 20th century works. The works by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and by Picasso and Braque, et al., were good and representative, but what impressed me the most were the works by Norwegian artists I’d never heard of, particularly Christian Krohg. Krohg painted straightforward pictures with a lot of social meaning: of, for instance, a girl dying of tuberculosis, or a girl from the countryside lined up in a police station to be checked for VD so that she could work as a prostitute.

I took some pictures of the visitors in the Munch room.

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As I said, we were crashing, and we returned to the hotel to nap. We had made a dinner reservation on the recommendation of a friend at a fancy restaurant and we didn’t want to fall asleep during the meal. We awoke from our naps around five or so, and took a cab to the Aker Brygge area along the harbor. I wanted to see this waterside development because it’s been redeveloped from a shipyard that closed. Recycling industrial sites is a big thing in Los Angeles, including in Santa Monica, and in Santa Monica we’re always interested in the future of our waterfront, too.

Aker Brygge is slick. My overall impression was to wonder why (and how) the Scandinavians, or at least the Norwegians, do such a better job with modern architecture and urban planning than we do in the U.S. The scale seemed perfect.

Aker Brygge waterfront

In Santa Monica there are many battles about height (often as a stalking horse against any development), particularly along Ocean Avenue. Aker Brygge shows that good new development need not be very tall (although good development can be tall, too). My photograph of the harbor promenade shows buildings of only six stories, with excellent details and high quality materials. From a planning perspective, the designers did good work with ground floor connections to the public realm, and the public realm itself. (I suspect that developments like these, even at five stories, would face opposition in Santa Monica from the same people opposed to taller buildings, but that’s another story.)

From Aker Brygge we took a cab to the restaurant, which is called Ekebergrestauranten, presumably because it’s the restaurant located in Ekeberg Park. The park is now an outdoor museum for modern sculpture, but we only had time to see the sculpture from the taxi. The restaurant is in a terrific 1929 modern building (outside and in; see pictures) that is worth, with the accompanying views, at least a bit of a journey itself. We had a wonderful meal—of fish and game (venison in this case), which became the culinary themes of our Norwegian visit.

Ekebergrestauranten exterior

Ekebergrestauranten interior

The after dinner view from Ekebergrestauranten

Next day, Wednesday, Sept. 6, I was on my own as Janet went off to her conference at the university.

What I most wanted to see in Oslo was their Resistance Museum, which tells the story of what happened in Norway after the Germans conquered the country in April 1940. I’m a Baby Boomer child of parents who came of age during WWII (my father was in the army from 1942-45), and the War has always fascinated me. Not only that, but I can’t resist stories of courage and resistance to tyranny, which is what I knew I would find at the museum.

Fortunately, getting to the museum from our hotel on Karl Johans Gate was the perfect opportunity (notwithstanding the constant Norwegian drizzle-bordering-on-rain) for a walk that took me past some of the major monuments of the city. These included the Parliament building (opposite of which I was pleased to find a statue of my new favorite artist, Christian Krohg), and the City Hall (which as a local politics guy I was pleased to see looked bigger than the parliament).

Christian Krohg

The Parliament building

Between the Parliament and City Hall I stopped at a park where it appeared that a French company was running a demonstration project for a self-cleaning public toilet; they had three units there, in the French tricolor, named Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

Oslo City Hall is a major monument—to government itself and to modernity. Every year on December 10 the Nobel Peace Prize is announced there. The design comes from the 30s, and it’s hard not to see affinities with the Italian architecture of the era, which goes to show that there’s not much political content in architecture, or that architecture can be used for any political purpose. But the Oslo City Hall represents democracy, and from the “back” (the side not facing the harbor) it presents “open arms” to the public from the semi-circular plaza surrounding it.

Oslo’s City Hall from the “back.”

The plaza in front of the back of City Hall

The interior of City Hall was closed for preparations for parliamentary elections that were scheduled for the next week, which was unfortunate for me since I couldn’t see the “socialist” murals inside. After reading about them, I’d hoped to compare them in my mind with the Diego Rivera murals I’d been fortunate enough to see in Mexico City in 2016. I missed the murals, but the courtyard of City Hall is decorated with carved wooden bas-reliefs depicting Norse myths, and I liked them. I like them in particular because just before leaving the States for Norway I’d uploaded a book of the myths to my Kindle, and I’d been reading about what I was seeing. Don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of the bas-reliefs, however.

City Hall’s courtyard (the bas-reliefs surround this)

I walked around to the other side of City Hall, the side that faces the harbor. Oslo in general and this area in particular has many outdoor sculptures. Most of the males were statesmen or artists, or workers in specific trades, while most of the women were naked and either motherly or allegorical (or both).

The front of City Hall, from the harbor

Tourist mimics sculpture

Looking out into the harbor from City Hall to the right is Aker Brygge, where I’d been the night before, and to the left is the Akershus Fortress, a working military base and the home of Norway’s Defense Ministry, but which was opened some years ago to the public as a park. The Resistance Museum is located in the fortress, and so I walked up into it, past a statue of Franklin Roosevelt. During the War the U.S. gave sanctuary to the Norwegian queen and her children (the king stayed in London, “on the job” so to speak, rallying the Norwegian resistance), and in gratitude Norway dedicated the statue of Roosevelt. The king’s decision to fight is the subject of a 2016 Norwegian movie, The King’s Choice, that is being released this fall in the U.S.)

The views of the harbor from the fortress are terrific, as one would expect.

The Oslofjord harbor from the Akers Fortress

I spent more than two hours in the Resistance Museum. I believe I read all of the considerable number of words in English there. I was moved. The museum was established around 1970, 25 years after the War ended, when the men and women of the Resistance could take stock of what had happened and what they had done. The museum, as the creation of both people who were involved in the events interpreted in there and of “objective” curators, is a curious, but inspiring, combination of “another roadside attraction” type exhibits, such as models of particular events and saved artifacts, that reflect the subjective perspectives and collections of those involved in the history, and more typical museum displays about the history.

The Museum doesn’t explain why Hitler invaded Norway and it doesn’t continue after the War to detail what happened to the quislings (including Quisling himself). There’s no larger history told other than that of the Resistance. Norway began resisting the Germans the night of the surprise attack of April 9, 1940, when an alert shore battery 30 kilometers west of Oslo, manned by aged pensioners and new recruits, sunk the German cruiser Blucher, which was full of soldiers and gestapo agents with a mission to seize the royal family and government officials. This was a major defeat for the German navy, and allowed the king and government to escape being captured at the start of the invasion, and to organize resistance.

After the Wehrmacht consolidated its control of the country, the Resistance took many forms. The one constant was the inability of Quisling’s Norwegian version of Nazism to convince many Norwegians that because of their ethnic heritage they should side with Hitler. I loved reading that the sports organizations just shut down rather than cooperate with the Germans, teachers wouldn’t cooperate as well, and that most of the police hightailed it to Sweden, where they trained as a military force to come back and fight when the Allied Command would call on them to do so. (Which the Command didn’t do, because the Allies didn’t want to have to divert their own troops to Norway—instead they wanted the Norwegians to keep the (up to) 400,000 Wehrmacht troops that were in Norway busy there, instead of leaving to defend Germany.)

I only took one photo in the museum—it’s of the sculpture that greets you when you enter, which is a swastika made of confiscated Mauser rifles.

In college a book that influenced me a lot was Mancur Olsen’s The Logic of Collective Action, which mostly deals with organizations like labor unions. The story of the Norwegian Resistance to the Germans is one of collective action writ large. It’s a great lesson for all time.

It wasn’t until after two o’clock that I exited the Resistance Museum, and I walked around the fortress. I popped into the Norwegian Military Museum, but mostly to get a sandwich at the coffee shop. I didn’t spend much time looking at the exhibits, but the Norwegian military is quite proud of the work they do these days in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, as well as with NATO.

At that point I was making a decision about what to do that night. My choices were to go with Janet out to dinner with her colleagues from the conference, or to go to see a performance that I’d seen advertised of The Magic Flute at Oslo’s opera house. I was torn. I like Janet’s colleagues (she’s a professor of philosophy), but I figured the first night of the conference they’d all be talking shop, and I love the Magic Flute. Once I realized that the opera house was only a ten-minute (or so) walk from the fortress, I wanted to see the opera house anyway, as it is new (2008), dramatic building designed by the Snøhetta firm.

Plaza at the Oslo Opera House

I decided to let the opera house make the decision: I’d go there and if the box office had a ticket available, I’d buy it.

Which they did and which I did. Which proved to be fortunate, as the production was unique. What the Oslo opera had done was get a well-known Norwegian comedian to play Papageno. According to the couple sitting next to me, the comedian had spent a year training to sing the role, and the production, which had premiered two years ago, had become a hit. Basically, amid all the great music and terrific singing, the comedian played Papageno as a social commentator. Most of his lines (but not all; some he must have adlibbed, based on the audience’s laughter) were translated into English in the titles that ran Metropolitan Opera-style on the backs of seat. His commentary acted as something of a counter-narrative to the weird Masonic and misogynistic text of the opera, without over-contemporizing it. (Agreed that Papageno already has this role in the libretto itself.)

Inside the Opera House

One of the best bits of going to the opera was that I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, Henrik and Elin. It turned out that they knew well the area that Janet and I would be driving to later in the week, and Henrik promised to send me a route to follow, which he did the next day. More on that later.

Next day, Thursday, Sept. 7, was one of those travel days when little things go wrong, but the results are good. To begin with, I needed to do laundry. I did a Google search and found that there was a coin laundry about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. I figured any 15-minute walk from the center of a city you don’t know has to be good, and set out for the laundry around nine o’clock. I expected to be finished by 11:00, and that I’d still be able to get over to the Bygdøy area by noon or so, to see the (several) museums there.

I won’t go into what a ridiculous travel laundry experience this turned out to be (other than to say that laundry, even coin laundry, like everything else in Norway is very expensive—$20 to wash and dry a small load of clothes!), but the serendipitous part was that not only was the laundry in a charming neighborhood with a good book shop (where I found a good map of southern Norway), but it was across the street from what is functionally Norway’s national cemetery.

Which I learned at the entrance to the cemetery where I found a graffiti’d map on a sign showing where the most famous dead are buried—including Ibsen, Munch, and my new favorite painter, Krohg.

The cemetery is a beautiful place and I took a lot of pictures, not only with my iPhone, but also with my Leica (with black and white film, so I have to wait for those to be processed).

Christian Krohg’s tombstone (and also for his wife, Oda, who was also a good painter)

Ibsen’s tomb

Along with the artists and literary lights buried there, I found a monument to two of the heroes of the WWII Resistance, Rolf Wickstrom and Viggo Hansteen, labor leaders the Germans executed.

After wandering around the cemetery I went looking for a coffee shop. On the way I passed a relic to a not-too-distant but it-feels-like-ancient past—a Kodak film sign. It too seemed like a monument to a deceased hero, namely, film. It’s outside what’s now a health food store, which, alas, does not sell film. I hope the sign stays there for a century or so, as an artifact.

While I drank my coffee I took a closer look at the guidebook. (The guidebook we took to Norway was Rick Steves’. I recommend it, and I’ve borrowed a lot from it for this essay, but I should note that it only covers southern Norway.) I learned that the neighborhood I was in, Grünerløkka, was a 19th century area laid out and constructed during Oslo’s industrialization, and that industrialization had largely occurred along the banks of the nearby Akers River. The river’s successive rapids and waterfalls had been harnessed for the power to run the mills and factories that fueled rapid population growth: Oslo’s population increased from 10,000 to 250,000 between 1850 and 1900. Steves recommended a walk up the river. After picking up my laundry, that’s what I did, instead of going to Bygdøy.

Along the way I passed Oslo’s oldest church, in fact the oldest building in Oslo, from the 11th century, the Gamle Aker Church.

Gamle Aker Church

The walk took me through 19th century neighborhoods that reminded me of elements of Barcelona’s and Berlin’s neighborhoods from the same time period. The river itself was lined with old rehabbed and re-purposed industrial buildings, including a large grain elevator that is now student housing.

Good 19th century urbanism

Grain elevator then, student housing now

You could see where the millraces had been.There’s a statue of four women workers (clothed), looking with some bitterness across the river at an old mill.

Old mill.

Four women mill workers

A street in Grünerløkka.

Also along the river, new developments, once again with excellent contemporary architecture and planning, had been built as infill. I ate lunch (moule frites) at a food hall, Mathallen Oslo, in one of the new buildings.

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New riverside development.

Mathallen

To return to the hotel on Karl Johans Gate I followed the river towards the Grønland neighborhood and the harbor. The river flattened out and became the centerpiece of an urban park. The last photo I took in Oslo was of pedestrians on Karl Johans Gate, behind the national cathedral.

Karl Johan Gate

Janet’s conference concluded Thursday (everyone, including me, went to dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant in Aker Brygge that night) and on Friday, Sept. 8, we picked up a rental car and started our two-day drive across southern Norway to Bergen. We had made a reservation for that night at a historic hotel in a little town called Solvorn. Solvorn sits on a fjord called the Lustrafjord that is a tributary fjord to the largest fjord of all, the Sognefjord. Fortunately these plans came up when I was talking to the couple I’d met at the opera Wednesday night, and Henrik had advised me to take a certain route that would take us over a pass with a glacier. The next day he emailed me a Google Maps link showing the route. The route added an hour or so to what would have been a six-hour drive, and so we probably would not have taken it, and we would have missed one of the best drives ever.

For the route, you travel north from Oslo towards Lillehammer on the E6, which is a major, divided highway when it leaves Oslo, but turns into a two-lane route a couple of hours out of Oslo. At a town called Otta you bend to the west and then later south, and ultimately you head down Route 55, through the Jotunheimen mountains. If you’re familiar with the Norse myths (which I was reading while I was in Norway), you will recall that the giants, with whom the gods were always fighting when they weren’t socializing with them, lived in the Jotunheimen, which is high up off the fjords, above the tree line, barren and cold, with glaciers that remain from the Ice Age.

Map of part of Route 55

The glacier and lake at the highest pass over the Jotunheimen, at the Sognefjellshytta lodge.

As is unfortunately typical for me, I didn’t read about this drive in the guidebook until after we’d completed it, so we missed stopping to see a few things. It turns out that Route 55 is a famous road. It’s known not only for the terrain it traverses, but also for how it does so, with many hairpin turns to bring the road down from the Jotunheimen to the Lustrafjord.

After the hairpin turns, past the town of Fortun, you come across this church in the valley.

Our destination in Solvorn was the Walaker Hotell, which we’d read about in the guidebook. The hotel dates back to 1690 and is now in the hands of the ninth generation of Walakers.

Walaker Hotell, Solvorn

The current proprietor met with guests to answer questions and tell stories after dinner. (Nice guy!) Speaking of dinner, while we’d been driving earlier in the day the hotel called on my mobile phone. They wanted to know if we wanted to reserve a table at the four-course dinner they serve each night. The meal, like all restaurant meals in Norway, would be expensive (about $90 for each of us, not including wine), but we said sure. After all, you only live once (and maybe go to Norway only once) and for that matter, we didn’t know if there was any other place to eat at in Solvorn. The meal was terrific, and served beautifully.

The hotel is located near where the Lustrafjord joins the Sognefjord. These are views from more or less its front yard.

Solvorn’s waterfront.

Looking across the Lustrafjord from Solvorn to Urnes.

Looking down the Lustrafjord towards the Sognefjord.

Saturday, Sept. 9. One reason to stay in Solvorn is that it’s a short ferry ride across the Lustrafjord to Urnes, which is the location of the oldest stave church in Norway. Stave church is not a term I’d known about before planning our trip to Norway, but stave churches are Norway’s special contribution to architecture. They were built in medieval times, after Norway converted to Christianity (around 1,000). There used to be about 1,000 of them, but only 28 remain. The Urnes stave church dates from 1129.

Urnes stave church

What I found most interesting about the stave churches (stave, by the way, refers to the large upright posts in the corners of the structures) was that as unusual as they look, they do not reflect the isolation of Norwegian culture in the Middle Ages, but rather the opposite. They were an attempt in the newly Christianized north to build churches using the Romanesque architecture that was the “International Style” of the time. Norway had a lot of wood and a long tradition of building boats out of wood, and the wood and the skills were used to build the stave churches. The Romanesque style is particularly evident in the round arches that are used throughout.

Decorative carvings at the Urnes stave church

Interior, Urnes stave church

The reason, by the way, that the churches have their evocative black color is that the wood is preserved by applying pine tar every five years or so. The churches, at least the two that we visited, are still in use. (I learned these facts from the tour guide who showed everyone around the church.)

The Urnes stave church is high up on a ridge above the ferry crossing and overlooking the junction of the Lustrafjord and Sognefjord. The views are tremendous, as were the views from the little ferry that we took back to Solvern to get back on our way to Bergen.

View from the graveyard at Urnes stave church

To get to Bergen from Solvorn, it’s possible, if you want to do so and if you time things right, to take a three-hour ferry from a nearby town (Kaupanger) to Gudvangen on the other side of the Sognefjord. This would save a lot of driving and give one the equivalent of a fjord cruise. We considered doing that, but instead opted to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord and later take a shorter ferry across the fjord before driving onto Bergen. There are three places to take such a ferry, and we chose the first one, from Hella to Vangnes. This was kind of a last minute decision, as we had planned to drive along the north shore of the Sognefjord all the way to Lavik, but we were worried about time. In any case crossing over to Vangness had the benefit of putting us on a road to Bergen that passed through the town of Vik, which has another stave church.

Vik stave church

The Vik stave church is somewhat bigger than the older Urnes church, and features decorative dragons on the roof. They come across as a charming throwback to pagan times (although I suppose Christians also believed in dragons). The Vik church was built by a family, the Hopperstads, and is named after them today (the “Hopperstad Stavkyrkje”). You still see the name Hopperstad on relatively gravestones in the graveyard. The Vik church shows, even more so than the Urnes church, the Romanesque influence. It’s worth remembering that the churches, other than their stone foundations, are entirely wood.

Another interesting feature of the Hopperstad church in Vik is that there is medieval graffiti carved into a wall, which the guide will show you if you ask. It looks like some of the graffiti are “sketches” for the dragons that would be carved for the roof.

Medieval graffiti in the Vik stave church

After Vik, we drove up and over another ridge, above the tree line, before descending with more hairpin turns down to the coastal plain that leads to Bergen.

In Bergen, we checked into our hotel, the Oleana, another well-run modernized hotel in an old building (like the hotel in Oslo). (For those driving into Bergen, note that the Oleana, located centrally on Ole Bulls Plass, does not have parking, but there’s a public parking structure about two blocks away. There is no need to have a car in Bergen, and we didn’t use ours while we were there. To return the car to the rental car company on a weekend, however, would have meant returning the car to the airport and then getting back into town, and that didn’t seem worth it. Also—be advised that there was a large drop-off fee charged for renting a car in Oslo and leaving it in Bergen.)

That night we’d made reservations at a restaurant we’d read about in the New York Times, the Lysverket. It was a “creative chef” type restaurant that featured local ingredients and paid tribute to traditional cooking, yet above all wanted to be a destination for foodies. We liked it well enough, but the food wasn’t particularly special, in our opinions, and the only menu choice one could make was to take either their four- or seven- course dinner. Not sure we’ll go back on our next trip to Bergen.

Sunday, Sept. 10. Bergen is a terrific town. I have a friend, an architect and planner at UCLA, who has always identified Barcelona as the city that got better every century, but from what I can tell, Bergen has the same history. Bergen was one of the five major cities in the Hanseatic League, the German consortium that dominated commerce (and not only commerce) in northern Europe for four hundred years starting in the 13th century. Bergen was where the German traders traded grain and other products for the dried cod (known as “stockfish”) that Norse fishermen caught and produced (primarily from January through March!) in the far north. Stockfish was a major source of protein for Europeans from medieval times up to the 20th century. A byproduct, cod liver oil, was used for lighting until kerosene came along in the mid-19th century. Codfish were to northern Europe much as olive trees were to the Mediterranean.

After heavy grazing at the Oleana breakfast buffet (one thing about Norway is that restaurant meals, along with everything else, are expensive, but if you stay a hotel with a breakfast buffet, you can save one meal, because you won’t need lunch!), Janet and I walked down into the old harbor area of Bergen, known as Bryggen, which is where the Hanseatic traders worked and lived.

The herring section of the Oleana’s breakfast buffet.

Facades in Bryggen facing the harbor. The wooden building on the right is the Hanseatic Museum.

There were many laws and customs against the German traders fraternizing with the locals. The traders mostly came to Bergen as young men to work for a few years, make money, and then return home. Our first stop was at the Hanseatic Museum.

The Hanseatic Museum is contained in a trading building (known as a “tenement”) from the 18th century (a fire in 1702 destroyed the old(er) city), which preserves how the traders lived. These pictures show sleeping cabinets, with sliding doors for privacy and darkness, for an apprentice and for a manager. The latter is a bit nicer and includes what is either a portrait of the wife back home or an 18th century pinup. You can learn a lot about the stockfish trade in the museum—as someone who loves dishes made from dried cod (bacalao in Spanish) I found it all fascinating.

A ticket to the Hanseatic Museum also gives one admission to another old building, the “assembly room,” where the apprentices took classes and where all the traders could eat hot meals (open fires were prohibited in the trading buildings), and to a fisheries museum. We took the shuttle bus the museum provides to the two other museums.

At the fisheries museum we boarded a little boat that took us further out in the harbor to an outdoor museum that celebrates the architectural history of Bergen. The “Gamle Bergen Museum” (Old Bergen Museum) is a collection of traditional buildings that were moved to a park when they otherwise would have been destroyed. In the summer, apparently it’s quite a scene. Actors in period costumes circulate, playing roles associated with the different buildings. There’s even a room, the “60s room,” with modern Scandinavian furniture. I wonder if they have actors for that. The museum closes at the end of August, but the day we were there it was reopened for a national culture day that Norway celebrates with many events for children.

The Old Bergen Museum

Another scene from the Old Bergen Museum.

The “60s room” at the Old Bergen Museum.

On the boat to the Gamle Museum we chatted with a man who was out for the day with his kids. He worked for a fish company, and he told us the names of his favorite fish restaurants in Bergen. That night we went to the one that was open on Sunday, Bryggeloftet & Stuene Restaurant, in the Bryggen, and we ate well.

Next day, we flew back to Boston from Bergen’s small and efficient airport, via Iceland.

We hope to return.

Modern Bergen (and Norway): still a crossroads.